It was a sticky, hot summer day on December 22, 1988, when Chico Mendes stepped from the back door of his small home to take a shower in the backyard. As he stood under the shower head, a rifle shot rang out and Chico fell dead. Inside, at his kitchen table, were two police officers that had been given the task of protecting Chico. They were busy playing dominoes instead of doing their job.
Mendes, an agreeable and talkative activist, and his family constantly received death threats. 1988 had seen so many that he predicted that he wouldn’t live past Christmas that year. Mendes was the 19th activist to be murdered in the country – more than one a month since January when the New Year began.
Patron of the Brazilian Environment
The rifle shot that was meant to silence Mendes produced a different outcome. Instead of destroying the movement to save the rainforest by killing its leader, the killers gave the environmentalists a martyr, around whom they could rally.
In the days and months following Mendes’ death, parks, roadways and reserves were all named after him. Legislation was quickly introduced, and signed into law, which would support the middle ground of Amazonian use which Mendes advocated. The rainforest could continue to be used in a sustainable manner and not completely closed off as the environmentalists wanted nor clear-cut as the loggers and landowners called for.
For the first time since the 1940s, the rainforest was allowed to grow and flourish. Sadly, this has come to a stop under the administration of current President Dilma Vana Rousseff . First elected in January 2011, she has been plagued by accusations of accepting bribes by wealthy landowners to set aside key pieces of legislation which would continue to product the rainforest. Since Rousseff took office, the Amazon rainforest has been disappearing at the rate of 28% a year.
More than 1 million people in the Americas have petitioned Dilma Rousseff to veto a low that could cause the loss of 220,00 square miles of rainforest.
The proposed forest code has been pushed through the Brazilian parliament by the powerful farming lobby. If the legislation is allowed to stand by Rousseff, critics say the law would provide amnesty for landowners who have illegally cleared forests in the past and will allow for deforestation in areas previously protected. Environmental groups claim the law could allow loggers to clear cut more of the Amazon than has been possible in the last 50 years.
The situation in Brazil today is a mixed bag.
The Brazilian government, which had ended the subsidizing of ranching and logging operations partly because of the Mendes murder, is now slowly restoring those subsidies. The World Bank, though, which once worked to finance development in the rainforest is now continuing to provide funding for nature reserves that are sustainable rubber plantations.
There’s still a lot of work to be done in the Brazilian rainforest. 1,000 activists have lost their lives since 1988 while fighting development in the rainforests and Brazil accounts for more environmentalist murders alone than the rest of the globe combined.
In 1987 Mendes won the United Nation’s Global 500 award recognizing his work on behalf of the environment. In accepted the award, Mendes said, “At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest, Now I realize I am fighting for humanity”.
There’s a lot of work left to be done to honor the memory of Chico Mendes.